As Naveen Patnaik govt's relief efforts during Cyclone Fani win plaudits, a look at how Congress paid for mishandling 1999 disaster
'When the people desperately needed succour, the government was in suspended animation,' a senior journalist in Odisha recalled.
The 1999 cyclone in Odisha had served a terrible blow to the Congress, which was then in power.
On the other hand, Naveen Patnaik’s efforts on disaster management paid rich dividends in the 2014 polls.
The Congress, it is widely believed, is at a point of no return in the state.
Memories of horrific devastation on 29 and 30 October, 1999 continue to send shivers down the spine for people living in coastal Odisha. Heavy rains and furious winds, which at times crossed 260 kilometres per hour, left over 10,000 dead and shattered millions of dreams. The disaster also served a terrible blow to the Congress, which was then in power.
Cut to the present. Four more cyclones (Phailin of 2013, Hudhud of 2014, Titli of 2018 and Fani 2019) later, the state seems to have moved forward. However, the Congress party in the state is yet to recover from the cyclone’s shock as it continues to search for ways to get its shattered house in order.
The Congress was already unpopular for corruption, internal bickering and a poor law and order situation. However, many, including some Congress leaders, believe that it committed a huge blunder post the tragedy.
“When the people desperately needed succour, the government was in suspended animation, as the Congress leaders fought among themselves for the chief minister’s chair. It was a classic case of complete apathy towards the miseries of millions of people,” recalled senior journalist Sandeep Sahu.
And all this happened just a few months before the state was to go for polls. According to a senior Congress leader, the faction-ridden party leadership did not allow the newly-appointed chief minister to get a grip on the administration. “All they were concerned about, even when the state was suffering, was how to dethrone Giridhar Gamang.”
In the process, the party prepared a solid ground for a change of guard. Naveen Patnaik and his newly-formed Biju Janata Dal (BJD) seized the opportunity with both hands and scripted a new chapter in Odisha politics.
Not surprisingly, the Congress felt the effect of the cyclone in the 2000 polls. From 80 Assembly seats in 1995, its numbers came crumbling down to 26. The BJD won 68 seats while its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured 38 seats.
In October 2013, Phailin, the second severe tropical cyclonic storm since the infamous 1999 super cyclone, made landfall in Odisha. Phailin was dubbed as a “super storm.”
The timing of Phailin could not have been worse, as it came during the Durga Puja celebrations, the biggest religious festival in eastern India. It also struck just six months before the 2014 elections.
However, Patnaik, aware of the cyclone’s possible impact, ensured that his government swiftly moved into action. He told state officials to ensure zero casualties, hours before the cyclone was to hit the coast.
Patnaik personally reviewed the relief arrangements at Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar. He also visited the state emergency control room, in the office of the special relief commissioner of Odisha, from where all rescue and relief operations were to be monitored.
The administration carried out massive evacuation of approximately 1 million people from vulnerable pockets to safe shelters, with provisions of cooked food there. Relief materials were stocked up at cyclone shelters. The Odisha government had made arrangements for over a million food packets for relief. Warning signals were given at the ports of Paradip and Gopalpur.
Patnaik also wrote to the Union defence minister seeking support from the Air Force and Navy for rescue and relief operations. Indian Air Force helicopters were kept on standby in West Bengal to move in for help at short notice.
“Patnaik did exemplary work and all credit should go to him for saving so many human lives. He had the right kind of officers in place for the moment and the task. He deserved and received accolades from all quarters —national and international,” noted Sahu.
As expected, Patnaik’s efforts paid rich dividends in the 2014 polls, as his party secured an overwhelming majority — 117 Assembly seats and 20 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress stood at a distant second position in the Assembly polls, with 16 Assembly seats.
To be fair, in terms of devastation and intensity, the 1999 super cyclone was much deadlier than the next four. Also, post 1999, the state has made a lot of progress and is considered the pioneer in disaster preparedness and management.
In 1999, without any warning system available, the government was caught off guard. However, since then, the Met department’s cyclone warning system has worked wonderfully and its forecast has been spot on.
Patnaik’s government used every piece of information to the best possible effect, and co-ordinated with all concerned departments to meet the challenge effectively, every time. And communication (telecom as well as road connectivity), considered to be key factors for post-cyclone disaster management, has improved a lot.
“In 1999, even after a week of the cyclone, it was extremely difficult to reach the affected villages. However, that wasn’t the case after Phailin or the other cyclones,” said senior Congress leader Panchanan Kunungo.
However, most importantly, Patnaik displayed what the Congress government lacked or ignored — a strong political will to tackle the calamity. And the people of the state felt it. Senior BJD leader Amar Prasad Satpathy asserted, “Our leader has always displayed the true qualities of a pro-people leader. In disaster management before and after cyclones, Patnaik is a role model globally.”
However, Patnaik’s “zero casualty” objective failed in the cases of Cyclone Titli and last month’s Cyclone Fani. Many people have criticised the government for its post-Fani response. Congress leader Kanungo said, “The government’s relief and rehabilitation measures have failed miserably. It’s only busy creating an image through national and international media.”
However, the administration, with the help of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), other agencies and volunteers, managed to evacuate, as the government claims, over 1.3 million people. The effort was hailed by the United Nations and international media too.
Incidentally, the poll process had already ended three days before Fani made landfall near Puri on 3 May. Three weeks later, as the results were announced on 23 May, the BJD once again emerged triumphant with a thumping majority of 112 Assembly seats and 12 Lok Sabha seats.
On the other hand, the BJP with 23 seats in the Assembly and eight in the Lok Sabha, eclipsed the Congress to take the second spot. The Congress managed to bag one Lok Sabha seat, and failed to reach even double digits in the Assembly, as it secured 9 seats, its lowest ever tally in the state. The party, it is widely believed, is at a point of no return in the state, at least in the next ten years.
However, some of the young faces of the party, while being “baffled” at the “directionless” movement of the state leadership, still believe that the Congress can overcome this “bad patch” in the future. In this regard, Kanungo said, “We have to seriously introspect, bring in more young people to the fore, and start over again. The Congress has a base and it needs to work together with a new vigour. Like Buddhism, the Congress is a part of life in Odisha.”
However, considering Patnaik’s popularity and the resurgence of the BJP, the Congress will need a miracle to enable its turnaround in the near future. Prior to that, the party has to rebuild confidence in the minds of the people of the state.
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